Students in Sim Lab

Active Learning


What is Active Learning?

While there are many definitions for active learning, it is essentially engaging students in ways that force them to regularly assess and think about their learning. Using active learning, students become active participants in constructing their own knowledge. Active learning is a learner-centered approach to teaching where the instructors are facilitators of learning rather than providers of information.

Why use Active Learning?

Educational research indicates that student attention in traditional lectures begins to drift within 10-20 minutes. Incorporating active learning three times during a 50 minute lectures helps regain student attention (Prince, 2004). Active learning is not only a tool of student engagement, it also:

  • Develops real world skills like collaboration and problem solving.
  • Provides more frequent and immediate feedback to students
  • Gives more opportunities for assessment of learning
  • Increases student motivation for learning
  • Builds a community learning environment
  • Encourages increased student to student interaction and instructor to student interaction

How to Incorporate Active Learning?

Active learning doesn’t have to involve an entire redesign of your course. It is possible to incorporate small changes that make a big difference. Here are some techniques:

  • Prediction: By using a pre-test, writing prompt, or audience response tool, ask students to predict the correct answer to material you haven’t covered yet. Research shows that pretesting improves student performance on the actual test, even when they guess the wrong answer (Lang, 2016).
  • Socratic Questioning: The purpose of Socratic questioning is to challenge thinking and lead students to discovering the answer for themselves.
  • One-Minute Paper: Pose or post a question on the content and give students one minute (or two) to respond.
  • Muddiest Point: Essentially, a variation of the one-minute paper. At the end of a class session, ask students to write down what they felt was the muddiest point in the lesson. This will give you immediate feedback on what students are grasping and where you may need to spend more time. You can frame this as a general question, “What was the muddiest point in today’s lecture?” or you can frame it more specifically.
  • Think-Pair-Share: Give students a moment to think over the question. Pair them with a partner to discuss and possibly debate their answers. Then share with the rest of the class the outcome.
  • Case Studies: Case studies allow students to apply the content you are teaching in real world situations. A case study can be fact-driven and deductive where students are expected to come up with a correct answer or context drive where students may need to find multiple solutions.
  • Learning Cell: Students read an assignment and write questions dealing with key content. At the beginning of class, students are randomly assigned to pairs. Then, one partner begins by asking the first question. After answering the question (and perhaps being coached to the answer), the second student asks a question and so forth. The instructor moves from dyad to dyad giving feedback and answering any questions that arise.

Teaching Tips for Active Learning

  • Start small: Choose a simple technique and try it out.
  • Be transparent: Explain to students why you are using these techniques and how you expect them to benefit.
  • Consider logistics: Does the room lend itself to small groups or would audience response activities work better?
  • Think attention: How will you regain student attention following the activity? Flashing the lights, clapping your hands, or using an online timer can all work.
  • Avoid busy work: Don’t incorporate active learning just for the sake of being active. Make sure the technique has a clear learning benefit.

Six Types of Socratic Questions

  1. Conceptual clarification: Why are you saying that? Can you give me an example?
  2. Probing assumptions: What else could we assume? What would happen if... ?
  3. Probing rationale, reasons and evidence: Why is that happening? Are these reasons good enough?
  4. Questioning viewpoints and perspectives: What alternative ways of looking at this are there? Who benefits from this?
  5. Probe implications and consequences: What are the consequences of that assumption? How does this fit with what we learned before?
  6. Questions about the question: Why do you think I asked this question? What might I ask next?


Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning (1 edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223–231.

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